This post is a follow-up on the previous one. It is an updated version of a number of tentative responses which I had made to comments on my last blog. In this regard I am indebted to Terry Sissons and Bob Willis for their comprehension, insights, focus and clarity of expression. Putting my response into a post is intended to open the discussion to all.
I might feel personally committed to loving Love as the very condition of possibility of loving a real-life human being in their full reality. I recognize, however, that there are many people who have people that they love, but who do not “love Love.” They have other priorities in life. I have also observed that these people do NOT shrivel up and die, and in many cases seem to thrive or at least to be no worse off than those of us who have chosen the more “mystical” approach to human community.
And “community” is ultimately the issue: how human organisms interpret the “species-thing” which spawns them, by which they survive and in which they remain immersed all their lives. My view here runs directly contrary to the radical individualism which often functions unchallenged in the imagery we have of ourselves.
Individualism imagines that belonging to human society is like being the member of a club or a tenant in an apartment building or a homeowner in a residential neighborhood. Individuals here are the primary reality; the aggregate, such as it is, is secondary. The “club-member” image leaves out the pre-emptive and homogenizing power of culture and the metaphysical depth at which it organizes its community. The analogy I would use instead is that of the many-headed hydra. This mythological animal is one organism with many heads, all of whom identify with who they are. The one organism is the cultural community, and the many heads are the so-called “individuals” who comprise it and work together for its survival and advancement. The real “community” to which we belong is primary: it determines who we think we are and how we think we should live.
Analogies, like all metaphors, are not meant to be taken literally. The “hydra” imagery is designed to force the imagination to be more aware of the dominant and perduring role of the cultural community — the locus of that set of virtualities created to direct the behaviors of rational organisms, filling the gaps left by the loss of instinctual directedness. Society and its behavioral imperatives are the result. They are fictions … but they are fictions that run our lives. They may even be subconscious but they rule us and we obey them. We can separate from them, but only with great difficulty, and only if we are absorbed into another community. The image of the many-headed hydra is meant to disabuse us of any thought that we are absolutely independent individuals who can function outside of a cultural community.
In the area of “love” there are two false assumptions that I am challenging. One is that “love” as we understand it, is a stand-alone pre-existing “thing,” a physical or metaphysical reality, a “person”(“God”), the ground of being and therefore the very meaning of existence. And two, as a consequence, that the value choices (those virtualities that comprise culture) which run counter to that reality are anti-human and sooner or later will turn their adherents into dysfunctional self-centered idiopaths incapable of any socially constructive human interaction.
In contrast I am saying that the whole enchilada is our choice. That there is some pre-existing metaphysical reality beyond human survival that constrains our choices is a myth that almost by necessity accompanies every culture’s self-projection. It is the primary mechanism for generating confidence in the common vision and its required behavior. We have changed our social self-definition in the past, and may be in the process of changing it again. Once those cultural shifts are made — and they take a very long time to complete — people live and thrive (or “shrivel”) based on the standards set by those conventional norms not in terms of some pre-existing metaphysical or physical reality. In other words, cultural norms are typically projected as “absolute and objective,” but they are in fact all relative and collectively subjective. They are created by the human community.
So, to apply this to our examples, human interaction as only sex or the maternal instinct (physical realities), or the “love” that is claimed to have spawned them (metaphysical-religious “realities”), potentially can be replaced by some other determinant. We have all had experience of people who have chosen to live by priorities other than physical or metaphysical “love” — like those who identify authentic human achievement exclusively with the accumulation of goods, or the acquisition of social prestige — and while we may demur at their priorities, and complain that their beliefs work to the detriment of others, we know that they can be quite content conforming to their chosen set of values and lead satisfied lives. They pursue their beliefs in good faith. They do not become social pariahs; they are polite neighbors, law-abiding citizens and reliable in business. We can easily project a future in which an entire society thinks along the same lines forcing all the heads of the hydra to agree and strive to conform to them or risk shriveling through social defeat. Such a culture is not unimaginable at all.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol illustrates the confrontation of two sets of such “values” which, over a long period of time, can coalesce into a “culture.” Dickens was obviously opting for “love” and as an artist sought to construct a narrative that would move his readers to make the “right” choices. If today I find the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge an unsavory character, it may be mostly due to Dickens’ artistry. There is nothing to prevent Scrooge’s values from dominating an entire culture, and indeed, many feel that they have. Human community can be ruled by the elevation of conspicuous consumption into a transcendent value, determining worthy partners for reproduction and whether an individual will have enough self-esteem to live a psychologically healthy life. In fact, there is nothing to prevent such attitudes from dominating everyone on the planet, rich and poor, western, eastern, northern, southern, first world, third world, each with a social and psychological fallout that corresponded to their relative situation.
What I’m saying is that if we want “love” to rule, and that means with all its egalitarian, generous and non-calculating implications, we have to fall in love with it. “Love” can become a “reality” only through human loving. “Love” is an exclusively human phenomenon; there was no such thing as “love” before we appeared, and it definitely was not the primordial condition of the universe of matter from which we have evolved. If we don’t create love, it won’t exist. We have to choose it, commit to it and support one another in the effort, for there is no other force or entity in the universe to guarantee its existence.
I recently saw “The Pianist,” a movie about the Jewish experience in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis. I see the Nazi phenomenon as paradigmatic of so-called “dysfunctional” cultural choices — Nazi culture was psychopathic. My view is contrary to the claim, however, that “life and love are identical” … and hence the conclusion which follows from those premises, that a culture built in the absence of love, like the Nazi, will die out. I wish it were true. But if Germany had won the war, the world would have acculturated to those values.
I used to think “love” was our “very being.” But I no longer agree that we are dealing with a physical or metaphysical identity here. It is a cultural choice. That means that, just like individual psychopaths, psychopathic cultures like the Nazi can exist, and entire populations can live by them, however dysfunctionally, for a very long time — as long as any culture. I think that it’s better when life and love are identical and I personally strive to make them identical, but I am persuaded that the primacy of “love” is a virtual truth — human wisdom — and not a metaphysical truth. It’s a choice. A metaphysical truth would make it a necessity, and we would literally die without it. As it is we do not die, we live on in pain and inflict pain on others.
In our current situation the only thing that will stop the cultural madness that we call “modern civilization” is an ecological mistake so irreversible as to end the possibility of life on earth for the human species. Barring that, it seems that no amount of sado-masochistic self-destructive behavior — war, genocide, economic exploitation, social injustice, environmental pollution — can stop us … nothing we do morally or spiritually will result in our dying out as a species. Like Macbeth, we can “creep in this petty pace from day to day, until the last syllable of recorded time.” That we didn’t all just die after what we did to one another in WWII, from Nanking to Auschwitz to Leningrad to Dresden and Hiroshima, is proof enough of that.
Why is this point worth making? Is this just another metaphysical quibble on my part? Why not simply declare that a loving life is “better” and that without it life is impoverished? I too believe the practical side of this question is the most important, but I believe we have to face our inescapable responsibility. We can’t afford to deceive ourselves. We have no marching orders from the Universe. Love is OUR chosen project. There was no such thing as “love” as we know it before we came along. It is our invention, our creation. There is no one to teach us how to do it; and nothing can help us do it but ourselves. The “love” that we are in love with is part of our self-embrace. It is not what we are but rather whom we may choose to be.
We even assemble the cultural weapons we use to fight this fight, they are ours: our artistry, our poetry, our myths, our religion. The very fact that every culture claims some pre-existing metaphysical bedrock for its projected vision is, ironically, part of the deception. It’s one of the fictions we use to help us keep going. But there is no “love” (as we know and define it) at the heart of the universe. Any “love” that we recognize as human comes exclusively from human beings. The “God of Love” is our creation, our projection, our fictional narrative, our “Christmas Carol.” It is we who make the material universe sacred by loving it … by accepting it as it is, and ourselves as we are — its progeny.
Little by little … over unimaginable eons of time … starting even before our eukaryotic single-celled ancestors first invented sexual reproduction, we, matter’s energy, have made ourselves into these bodies of ours. We, matter’s energy now in human form, use these inherited bodies for our own purposes. This is our work driven by a material energy which we increasingly manage and direct.
Matter’s energy is “LIFE.” LIFE is from the beginning. We would not be here without it. There is no way we can avoid seeing our dynamic source, matter’s energy, LIFE, as an abundant, uncalculating magnanimity … a profligate limitless generosity and endless availability. There is a correspondence between what must appear to us as the “unselfish” energy of LIFE and what we call “love.” We have discovered a paradox: that it is universally fulfilling to imitate in our own relationships the almost infinite self-emptying self-donation that is characteristic of the roiling pool of dynamism — LIFE — that evolved us. “Love” is how we express, in our terms and in the context of the relationships that sustain us, the limitless universal availability of matter’s energy — LIFE.
“Love” is the human expression of LIFE. Through our choices the self-donation of LIFE stops being unconscious, unspecified, unfocused. We humans as rational self-disposing, symbol-making organisms, can embrace LIFE as ours; we can appropriate it, make it our project and express it as “love.” We can choose it.
It’s a very wise choice … but it is a choice.